Refugee choosing happiness

By Connor Rose

Adorned with a light blue undershirt, a grey suit jacket, pants and a cherry-on-top fedora, Patrick Onek smiles when asked if he experienced poverty. It wasn’t a timid smile, but a purposeful, childish grin – a smile you’d not expect to be worn by someone who spent ten years in a refugee camp.

“Oh yeah,” he chuckles, “it was definitely poverty.”

Patrick enjoys walking and being with nature in his spare time – it’s his escape from reality. Photo by Connor Rose

Patrick has a story to tell – a story about happiness. It’s not an account he wants to share, but one he needs to, and one that he thinks society must hear. After his friends pressured him to take his inimitable story-telling skills to the next level, Patrick decided to commence writing his autobiography.

With the multiplying population of refugees around the world, awareness on the living nightmares they experience has never been more important. Refugee week, which commences on the 18th of June, aims to increase this understanding. Hearing stories like Patrick’s will help the wider community to empathise with refugees.

“If I write a story I can at least share that with more people. Especially with people in the western world so I can show them that we do have it really good. We take the simplest things for granted, like water … I used to walk three kilometres for water, now I just get it out of a tap,” he says.

“I felt blessed actually. If I got to eat, or if I got to drink soft drink then it was a good day – I was having a great time.”

Patrick was born in Sudan but was quickly sent to Kenya in 1993 after the Sudanese Military advised his mother to leave the civil war-torn country. His life, which had only just begun, descended rapidly into a desperate dice roll for survival.

“I didn’t ever know what I was going to eat that day, if I have any money this week, or if we had to rely on the UN [United Nations] to feed us … we just had to live day to day,” he says calmly, without even a hint of misery. “I felt blessed actually. If I got to eat, or if I got to drink soft drink then it was a good day – I was having a great time.”

Patrick was grateful for everything he had in the camp, but he and his mother knew they couldn’t stay there, and she began applying for refugee status. Several unsuccessful attempts hurt the family’s already scant funds, but they persevered. Finally, they were approved and relocated to Australia in 2004.

Joining first-world civilisation was nothing like Utopia though. The family struggled with cultural differences, namely the shift from a deeply rooted community-driven society to individualist western culture, which presented itself as the opposite. Patrick admits that he almost felt depressed.

“I sort of even asked my mum like ‘why can’t we just go back? I have friends back there and I have no one here and I’m always alone.’ In my country we have people everywhere, you’re never alone because you live with your whole extended family.”

Patrick began studying a Bachelor of Business at the University of the Sunshine Coast in 2013 to make his vivid imagination meet reality. After graduating, he was so inspired by the prospect of business that he continued studying and acquired his Master’s Degree in Management in 2017. Now, he’s using his knowledge to build an IT services company, dubbed Old School IT, developed for training seniors and other members of society who are less tech savvy.

“In the refugee camp I always wanted to be a guy that wore suits, like a business man who made a lot of money, but I never knew how to do that,” he says. “Here, when you get older you move away and therefore they [parents] don’t have help … I want to come in and help them out, because they are the ones who built this country.”

Patrick’s values are underpinned by an awe-inspiring sense of community, family and service, as evidenced by his business ambitions. However, they extend much further than enterprise. He also volunteers for the Red Frogs Australia.

“People love getting drunk constantly and hurting themselves and people around them … if I could help out to minimise that risk and be a part of it … I could save lives really,” he says.

Despite the way his life has unfolded, Patrick doesn’t consider himself any different to anyone else. He just wants to change lives. He says the key to being happy is simple. “I think you can choose to be happy,” he says. “In a refugee camp I was happy, now I’m in Australia and I’m still happy.”

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